It's been a trying season to date for the Los Angeles Lakers. First, there was the whole lockout thing was followed by the CP3 fiasco, then the Lamar Odom fiasco, then a sub-par start to the season has brought us to the present day, where the Lakers' credentials as championship contender, a playoff team, even their stature as the favored team in their own city, are all being called into question. We've seen the Lakers go through a few different stages; barely getting by without Andrew Bynum, basking in Bynum's dominant return to the game, struggling to find a rhythm, staring in awe at the scoring prowess of Kobe Bryant, and back to being a team which has a king, a queen and a rook, but no pawns. Through those different movements, the Lakers have been happy, frustrated, resigned, shell shocked and awestruck.
Tonight, for the first time, they were angry. Angry at the basketball gods for depriving them all of their shooting touch. Angry at themselves for failing to perform to their own standards. Angry at the league for tinkering with their off-season plans. Angry at the pundits for writing them off so quickly. Angry with each other for failing to utilize the team's greatest strengths. And angry with tonight's opponents, the Los Angeles Clippers: for being the benefactors of their misfortune at the start of the season, for beating them the past few times the two teams have met, for trying to claim the city of Los Angeles as their own, and for trying to intimidate, through bully tactics, a team that has been through so much fire as to find the very concept of intimidation laughable. The Lakers channeled that anger, and came ready for a war.
And boy did they have one hell of a general. Kobe Bryant's obviously the commander in chief of this particular unit, but tonight, the spearhead was the ineptly named Metta World Peace, who spent the night creating chaos and bedlam and driving straight through the heart of enemy lines.
Metta's line on the night isn't impressive, as stat lines go. One game after he seemingly rediscovered how effective he can be in the post, MWP spent the entire offensive night on the perimeter, launching four shots, all of them three pointers. He only scored three points. He only secured 5 boards despite playing 38 minutes on the night. But none of that prevented MWP from being the most pervasive force on the Lakers roster tonight. For one, he was the Lakers' cheif playmaker, repeatedly driving into the lane and coming up with passes for inside and outside buckets, leading the team with 7 assists, and he did so without turning the ball over once. He was also the kind of chaotic force on defense that can't help but be a little intimidating, whether it's jumping on Blake Griffin's head to get a loose ball, or blocking a Chris Paul layup attempt with enough force to send CP3 to the ground despite getting all ball, or simply refusing to back down when the entire Clippers roster was getting in his face for being Crazy Pills. The man may no longer be known as Ron Artest, but it's good to see the Crazy Pills moniker still lives within him, because his only hope of helping the Lakers this season and beyond is to continue to tap into that emotion.
Speaking of tapping into emotion, it was great to see Pau Gasol get in on the act. Fresh off a game in which Gasol complained (in his ever so mild manner) about the way he was getting touches on offense, Gasol came out as aggressive as you will ever see him, scoring 17 points in the 1st half, and ending with 23 points on 13 shots and 10 boards. He, too, played with a little anger, picking up a technical foul just two minutes into the game. Kobe Bryant did a great job of metering his emotion, playing a measured and controlled game. He took just 17 shots, scored 24 points, and provided 7 rebounds and 6 assists, though the 7 turnovers are a slight black mark against his name. Most importantly, though, he relinquished (some) control over the end game, and his teammates rewarded this generosity. In the last five minutes of the game, the Lakers scored 12 points on 8 possessions (before the free throws came), which is a most excellent 1.33 points per possession. For the Lakers, that kind of late game execution has been extremely rare, so for it to happen, especially in the way that it did happen, is a tremendous reason for optimism.
Another reason for optimism? Andrew Goudelock played the game of his young career. Scratch that, he played the career of his young career, all in one game. Prior to tonight's contest, the young man had scored just 10 points in the previous 18 games combined. He surpassed that mark tonight by halftime, with an offensive explosion that included made threes (which shouldn't come as too much of a surprise) and a couple difficult teardrops (which were shocking). Behind Goudelock, and the surprisingly good shooting of Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant, the Lakers actually shot well from distance, hitting 9 of their 18 attempts. For the Lakers to get a net positive from their point guards against the Clippers' stable of All Star PGs is a miracle in itself, even if this was Chris Paul's first game back after missing a few. Still, the Lakers needed every bit of that edge from three, as well as the edge seen at the free throw line, because turnovers and offensive rebounds given up gave the Clippers an extra 11 possessions with which to do their damage
In the end, we should all be appreciative of the win, because there haven't been many to celebrate of late, but more importantly, we should all be appreciative of what was a competitive and entertaining game of basketball. Both teams were involved in the game in way that is bound to be rare in this chaotic season. That chippyness, that edge, that feeling as if it really was a war being fought on the court, made for some compelling basketball. I'll take a win over entertainment almost any night of the week, but getting both sure does feel great.